Interview: Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

Influential singer reflects on her years at Motown and no-frills '60s soul

February 10, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

"I'm having a little difficulty absorbing the news I just got," said Martha Reeves, after hearing that Gladys Horton, the original lead singer of the Marvelettes, had died at 66 in a California nursing home.

Though she hadn't spoken with Horton in 30 years — she had stayed in Detroit, while Horton moved to California — news of her death hit Reeves hard. Without the Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas would not have been.

"They were our pioneers," she said.

In recent years, many of Motown's stars have died. Only two of the original Temptations remain. All but a handful of the Funk Brothers, Motown's backing band, are gone.

Reeves, 69, is one of the last survivors of a golden age. The big hair is gone, as is the newcomer's urgency in her voice. When she takes the stage Saturday for a sold-out show at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, she'll likely do so a little slower, though in the same shiny sequins.

But she'll still perform songs that were the soundtrack to the '60s — "Dancing in the Streets" and "(Love is like a) Heat Wave" — and that retain much of their original appeal. Judging by how often she plays, and the recent Motown revival among singers as varied as Cee Lo Green, Janelle Monae and even Hanson, she's not far off.

"We've gone through a lot of changes in the world with the Motown sound. There was a time when we had segregated audiences," Reeves said. "But the music cruised through those times because it's about love and getting along and understanding."

Fifty years into her career, Reeves could narrate an oral history of Motown. She calls herself "a summa cum laude graduate" of the label. She didn't just see Motown's birth from the front row, but also the rise of generations of African-American music legends.

At her first Motortown Revue in 1962, she recalled, she went on 94 one-nighters with Mary Wells, the Miracles and Marv Johnson. The Temptations were singing backup for Wells and were considered filler. "They hadn't had a hit yet," Reeves said. Tagging along for the tour was a preteen named Stevie Wonder.

The Marvelettes were then riding the success of a couple of songs — "Please Mr. Postman" and "Beachwood 4-5789" — that Reeves said made her own career possible.

"There was a time when girl groups weren't that welcome," Reeves recalled.

A couple of years later, Reeves and the Vandellas scored their first big hit with "Come and Get These Memories" and later with the bubbly, frenetic "Heat Wave." Since then, Reeves said, she and her group — which now features her sisters, Lois and Delphine — have toured consistently, at least 35 weeks a year.

Reeves attributes the continued appeal of Motown to its upbeat romanticism — "When you hear it, you want to move and dance," she said — but also its authenticity.

"It takes a little bit of our soul to sing it," she said. It's something she doesn't see in today's music.

"It's a lot of machines," she said. "It's a lot of people making noises with toys. If I'm listening to any music and it's not real musicians, it doesn't hold my attention."

After years of being bombarded with vocoders and overproduction, listeners and musicians are finding Motown's no-frills approach current again; Cee Lo Green's soulful "Forget You" is just one of the songs that pay homage in imagery and sound to the music of Reeves' peak years.

Reeves has never abandoned it. In 2004 she produced an album, "Home to You," that she called a continuation of the Motown sound.

"Real horns, real strings, real bassists. None of those machines," she said.

Reeves said her shows try to stay as close to the albums' original sound as possible.

"The records have a magic, and we thrive on that," she said.

Asked if she'd do any special numbers because the concert at the Meyerhoff is on Valentine's weekend, she replied: "We don't have to change our songs for the season. Our songs fit every occasion."

If you go

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas perform Saturday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Doors open at 2 p.m. The Charlie Thomas Drifters will also perform. The show is sold out.

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